Remembering Sand Creek: Proposed Memorial Would Bring History to Colorado’s Capitol Grounds
“Remember us. Don’t forget us, remember us.”
These are the words that echo from November 29, 1864 to artist Harvey Pratt, Cheyenne/Arapaho, as he designed a memorial of the Sand Creek Massacre. For two years, since the 150th anniversary, efforts have been underway to place this memorial in Denver on Colorado’s capitol grounds, across the street from the state capitol building.
To date $162,800 has been raised toward the goal of $194,000 for Remember Sand Creek. One Earth Future became involved in February 2015, shepherding the project through the state legislature for approval and aiding in the fundraising.
“The State Capitol Advisory Committee unanimously approved the proposed plan to site the memorial on state Capitol grounds,” said Debra Havins of One Earth Future. The next step will be to bring the proposal before the full state legislature in 2017.
“It’s been milestone after milestone for Sand Creek stories,” Gail Ridgely, a Northern Arapaho, from Riverton, Wyoming, said in a video supporting the project. “This is another milestone here. A really good gesture by the state of Colorado and moreover the goodness of the governor… he’s an advocate of our tribal life and our history and our homeland.”
State Governor John Wright Hickenlooper Jr. has supported the memorial, as have many Cheyenne and Arapaho elders, forensic artist Harvey Pratt said. He was commissioned to do the design, and likes the idea of having something on the state Capitol grounds to keep the memory of the people alive but also to help Coloradans know their own history.
“I think it’s important that the truth is told about our history—the history of America,” he said. “So many things have been hidden—violence, deception and deceit. All of those things have to be told.”
Pratt was born in Oklahoma, and for him, as for so many in the diaspora of Cheyenne and Arapaho people, remembering what happened on that November day is personal and not as distant as the hundreds of miles or the 152 years might seem.
Some of Pratt’s ancestors survived and some did not survive that unprovoked attack when 675 cavalrymen descended to Sand Creek on the peaceful village of about 700 Cheyenne and Arapaho people. At the end of the bloody rampage, as many as 200 of the Native people, mainly women, children and the elderly, lay dead and an equal number wounded.
“My great grandfather and great grandmother were both survivors,” Pratt said. His great grandmother was Julia Bent, half white-half Cheyenne. Her non-Native father built Bent’s Fort along the Santa Fe Trail.
After the massacre, they, like so many others, were moved out of their home territory. His family was moved to Oklahoma, but others were moved to Montana and Wyoming. The Northern Cheyenne in Montana, Cheyenne & Arapaho Tribes in Oklahoma, and Northern Arapaho in Wyoming have roots in Colorado and ties to the horrific Sand Creek tragedy.
Anxiety from the massacre and forced moves rippled through history into his generation, Pratt said. “Growing up, my mother’s aunt, who lived with us, would say, ‘When you go to bed, put your shoes right by your bed because you might have to get up and run.’ They (the elders) told little stories about that: who was injured … who didn’t make it. … We all had stories about that place, Sand Creek.”
In those stories, the children were told of the dying calling out, “Remember us. Don’t forget us, remember us.”
All of that, he kept in mind in designing the proposed memorial. His artwork centers on a fallen woman holding an empty cradleboard and reaching outward. She bears the wounds traditional to the Cheyenne people in mourning. The full memorial will also include a representation of a tipi without hides, just the poles “to show that they destroyed the home, but not the foundation,” Pratt said.
There will be a U.S. flag and a white flag, both flown over the village at Sand Creek, as the people were told to do to show they were peaceful and not at war with the United States. The soldiers ignored that. So horrifying was the massacre that even then it was condemned by the U.S. Congress, thanks to some soldiers who came forward like Silas Soule, later murdered on the streets of Denver.
Pratt has another vision to tie the past with the present and future. “On a pathway that we’re going to pour in concrete, 6 feet wide and 20 yards long, we’ll have descendants put their footprints in it—children and adults. It will show some running away from the battle and represent that we’re still here. We’ve asked the National Park Service to get actual sand from sand creek to mix that concrete in it.”
Pratt appreciates creation of the Sand Creek Massacre Historic Site, though it is far off the track of most visitors. He has visited for inspiration and for remembering. “It was just like going to Bear Butte to me. It was a special place. And you just have a feeling about it. Some who go there, they would be emotionally distraught; they would hear their relatives. … It doesn’t belong to someone now. We can go there now and we don’t have to beg to go. It’s being protected and we can come and go as we please.”
The site has also been a starting point for the annual four-day Sand Creek Healing Run/Walk, which this year, its 18th, brought hundreds to the state capitol, reports the Denverite. The run/walk ended in Denver at the graveside of Silas Soule.
Pratt feels a memorial at the capitol will bring more attention to the past. Eerily, perhaps, the proposed new memorial will be across from the statue of a Union soldier triumphant from the Sand Creek attack. It has been listed as one of numerous Civil War battles involving Colorado troops. The statue drew the shocked attention of writer, John B. Judis, who wrote an article about it for the New Republic in 2014 at the 150th anniversary of the massacre.
“There is now an additional plaque there that corrects the history,” Havins said. However, the statue does remain representing the controversial nature of this time of Colorado’s history.
The proposed Sand Creek Massacre memorial is intended to tell a more complete, more honest story. “We are just going to bring history to life,” Pratt said. “We just want people to understand that there was more to what happened than what was told.”
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